Timely journey of discovery by Jacquie Hayes

PUBLISHED: 07 Sep 2013 PRINT EDITION: 07 Sep 2013

Rare find . . . the Richard II clock, dating back to 1396, that Christopher Becker says he discovered as a child on the family farm.

Jacquie Hayes

It’s election weekend, so First Class has decided to leave town to have some fun.

We’re off to the country to go bargain-hunting in one of the many delightful craft markets and curio and antique shops down Mornington way.  The inspiration for the trip came from a bit of luck the other week that saw my daughter land a somewhat serious piece of art from among random works submitted by students, parents and artists at a clever school fund-raising event.  All “postcards” were for sale for $50, but it wasn’t until after purchasing a work that you learnt who it was by.   

In my daughter’s case, the artist was award-winning portrait specialist Vincent Fantauzzo, an Archibald regular and global exhibitor.  “If you take that down to [Leonard] Joel’s tomorrow, you could sell it for $1000,” said a curator who happened to be standing beside us when our find was revealed.  That Fantauzzo had drawn a horse rather than a person, she said, would have thrown off the scent more savvy art-lovers on the hunt for the Fantauzzo. What a bargain.  And let’s face it, everyone loves a bargain, especially when it involves the prospect of coming across a hidden treasure unexpectedly.

Not that I hold any serious hope of finding one in a country antique store. Surely better trained eyes than mine would have snatched them up well before I turn up.But rare and precious items are apparently still there for the taking.  And those prepared to do some research, be patient about the hunt and be persistent in their efforts could turn a tidy profit.  I know this to be true because a couple of my contacts have lived the dream; one with sports memorabilia, the other with a serious antique.

The first is chief executive of the Gold Coast’s BAM Group, Brett “Crusher” Murray.  A former journalist, he’s spent the past 20 years offering his considerable PR and event management skills to the motorsport world.So when he got wind of the presence of a unique bag and helmet combination going cheap at the local Carrara Markets, he high-tailed it down there and bought the pair for $200. As he suspected, they once belonged to Australian Grand Prix champion Alan Jones; the helmet was from his go-karting days and the Italian-made leather Marlboro bag was his kit bag on the Formula One tour.

Admittedly, Murray had an unfair advantage over the rest of the world given his breadth of motor-racing knowledge. But that he went out of his way to verify a gut feeling put him in the running for a windfall and eventually enabled him to capitalise on it. As he knew Jones personally, he presented the goods for identification and had them signed before posting them for sale on BAM’s website.  The Marlboro bag, gifted to Jones and handstitched with his initials after he won the 1980 world title, soon fetched $5500. The helmet is still on offer for $15,000.

Not all of us have the wherewithal, the knowledge or the nous to bag a bargain of that ilk.  But sometimes it can come down to simple curiosity or pursuit of a mystery that leads us to the treasure.That’s certainly how it went for Christopher Becker, the co-owner of a jewel box of a store called Three Rooms in Paddington in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.  The exquisite antiques, art and furniture on display in those three rooms speak volumes about Becker’s skill in sourcing the truly spectacular during almost 20 years of dealing in antiques. But they in no way indicate how early it was that such a pedigree was instilled in him.

Becker was just seven when he came across what may have been the find of his life.  He and his brother were playing at grading a dirt road on the family’s Queensland cattle property, and in their search for appropriate tools discovered an intricately engraved brass quadrant in a bag of old pipe fittings.  His dad told him off for playing with something so fine, but with a radius of 88 millimetres, it would sit in a hand like a slice of pie, Becker says. So he dusted it off and it has remained with him since as a “boyhood trophy”.  It wasn’t until two years ago that he decided to look into whether it held any artistic or historic merit.  An initial Google search suggested it might be some sort of sundial device dating back some centuries.  So he took it to the British Museum for verification.  “It turned out to be King Richard II’s clock from 1396, and it is now also the second-oldest British scientific instrument we know of,” Becker says. “It was quite crazy.”

An in-house scientific instrument expert at Bonhams in London has since valued it at between $250,000 and $500,000. Not bad for a day’s work – or a bit of play, as it were.  And the “play” part can be the making of success here, Becker says.  “As a child, I loved secrets, intrigue and adventure, and I think I was captured by the mystery of having discovered something that was unknown, and then filled with the curiosity of wanting to learn more about it,” he says.  Not everything you find will turn out to be a winner, of course. But there are still potential wins everywhere, Becker says.“My thing is, always go with your gut because opportunity is rare, he says. “If you handle things often enough, you build up a sense of what’s good and what’s not. It’s just a case, first, of having the curiosity to explore them, the understanding to recognise them and then the perseverance to identify them.”

So regardless of who leads the country after this weekend, I will continue my forays in search of fun to remind myself that life is still so full of undiscovered possibilities.

The Australian Financial Review